TIFF in Review Part Two: Small Wonders

Last week I dove into the six fall movies I saw at the Toronto film festival, including Oscar hopefuls 12 Years a Slave, Gravity and August: Osage County. This week will be devoted to the smaller films—foreign and indie—that came to TIFF seeking distribution( with the notable exception of Asgar Farhadi’s The Past, which had already secured a release for December). Fortunately, as they’re isn’t a dud among them, each one has  been picked up by a US distributor, and will be released sometime on the 2014 film calendar.


Can a Song Save Your Life 

John Carney’s follow-up to his micro-budget smash hit Once, was at the center of the largest bidding war at this year’s TIFF, with various distributors negotiating deep into the night immediately following it’s world premiere. The Weinstein company won that battle, and they undoubtedly have a feel-good musical hit on their hands, with a tentative release date set for next summer. It’s a smart move on their part, ideal counter-programming against the onslaught of sequels and blockbusters – and yet I wish I could say I liked the movie more. While undoubtedly charming and uplifting, it’s basically a US remake of Once, with an almost identical blueprint: a down-on-his-luck musician  restores his will to live by recording an album with a younger, talented female emigre – and their connection remains platonic despite the profound influence they have on each other’s lives. Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley are engaging enough, but they are ill-served by a predictable script that repeatedly substitutes musical montages for character development – which would not be so problematic if the songs themselves were anything as raw and authentic as the film portrays them to be. Whereas the songs in Once were genuinely beautiful, this time around they’re slick, borderline-cheesy top 40-ready hits that immediately evaporate from memory, and seem strangely misjudged within the indie-spirit vs. corporate music business theme of the movie’s storyline. It all goes down easily enough, and many will no doubt adore it, but for my taste, it’s a distant, vanilla cry from the gem I hoped it would be. (Acquired by The Weinstein Company, for 2014 release.)  


The Selfish Giant 

Clio Barnard’s fiction follow-up to her fascinating documentary The Arbor, is a stunningly crafted realist fable that manages to re-configure Oscar Wilde’s classic children’s fairy tale into a deeply moving story of two teenage boys trying to make money from scrap metal hunting in the bleak landscape of Northern England. Reminiscent of both Lynne Ramsey’s Ratcatcher and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, which similarly found poetry in miserable, working class English settings, the film adopts a deceptively meandering, episodic pace as the boys’ friendship is tested by a harsh adult world—exemplified by the Selfish Giant of the title:  the tough, exploitative boss of a large scrap metal yard, who becomes a cruel father-figure for both of them, in very different ways. The two boys, both played by non-actors, are mesmerizing, and together paint one of the most believable screen friendships I’ve ever witnessed. The thick Midlands accents are hard to understand, but it doesn’t matter, as the film tells its story in startling, strangely wondrous images, weaving a slow spell that builds to a devastating conclusion, full of surprising, hard-earned grace. With The Selfish Giant, Clio Barnard joins the small but ever-growing ranks of incredibly talented female directors with a highly distinctive artistic voice, and I seriously can’t wait to see what she does next. (Acquired at Cannes by Sundance Selects for VOD and cinema release in 2014.)


Bad Words 

Jason Bateman’s directorial debut is an often very funny black comedy about a foul-mouthed 40-year-old man who finds a loophole that allows him to compete with school kids in a national spelling bee contest. And yet, despite venturing into potentially dark territory, the film’s soft heart is never in doubt, and an irritatingly on-the-nose, punch-pulling voice-over prevents it from being more than an effective R-rated laugher, a far sight better than its studio cousins, but lacking the subtext or soul needed to even enter the same league as a Rushmore or Big Lebowski. Perhaps the comparison is unfair (we’re talking major classics after all), but with a few tweaks and some heavier testicles, this could have been something really special, instead of an entertaining but ultimately disposable few hours. It’s a good one to discover on cable, on a plane, or as a weed-assisted rental, where low expectations can turn it into a pleasant surprise rather than anything of lasting value. And having said all that, it’s a worthwhile debut for Bateman, and a vast improvement over his likeable turns in mostly terrible studio fare. (Acquired by Focus Features for a 2014 release.)  


The Past 

Asgar Farhadi’s follow-up to the incredible, award-winning A Separation is not quite the masterpiece that film was, but a very, very good film nevertheless, cementing his reputation as one of the most skilled, compassionate storytellers on the foreign film circuit. Set in the suburbs of Paris, what begins as the story of an Iranian man come to sign his French wife’s divorce papers gradually splinters into an examination of secrets and consequence as the truth of a past, hidden event reveals itself piece by piece, touching the lives of everyone that comes into its orbit. The cast is uniformly strong, most notably Berenice Bejo who follows her silent-turn in The Artist with a layered, subtle performance that shows she’s the real deal, and the next great French actress poised for international acclaim. As with his other films, Farhadi is most interested in the complex, multi-faceted nature of truth, and how every participant has their own reasons for doing what they do. He never picks a side, and manages to widen the audience’s sympathies so expertly that it becomes impossible to predict which way the film go, or with whom. Part family drama, part mystery, The Past attains ethical resonance through undiluted, unsentimental compassion for everyone involved, and an endless fascination with the messy entanglements of our human desire to both connect and be validated. And when the ending comes, it ripples outward with a sad, unexpected beauty from the least expected corner of its world. (Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for a limited December 2013 release.)  


Under the Skin

Sexy Beast and Birth (savaged on first release but critically re-appraised since) —my expectations for Under the Skin were arguably too high, as I was expecting nothing short of a masterpiece. Way off the deep end of art house cinema, this is not a movie for anyone seeking traditional narrative rules of engagement, as it bravely, obtusely leaps and stumbles to create a new cinematic language in tune with its themes of literal and metaphorical alienation. What story there is centers on Scarlett Johansson’s alien predator as she cruises the streets of Glasgow to pick up horny Scotsmen, who she then takes to a between-the-worlds lair where they sink into an ink-like ocean for some unexplained, presumably alien-benefitting purpose. Withholding any exposition, and defiantly resistant to creating any momentum or pace, Glazer’s thoroughly bizarre and undoubtedly unique film is by turns excruciating and stunning, with endless, poorly filmed sequences through Scottish streets interspersed with mind-blowing scenes that could belong in one of Stanley Kubrick’s dreams. There are a handful of images here that are still burned into my mind, and at the risk of being too literal, it really does get under your skin, but I find myself wishing I could edit my own 40-minute version and cut out the parts that I found myself struggling to stay awake for. Admittedly, it’s a film that suffers at the tail-end of a festival-movie-marathon, and I will certainly revisit it in the future, but I find myself unable to recommend it to all but the most die-hard fans of cult art house cinema, even as I continue to wrestle with my own conflicted feelings toward it. (Acquired by A24 Films for 2014 release.)  


  So that’s that for this year’s Toronto reviews. As most who were there will attest to, it was an especially strong year, which  bodes well for the upcoming fall season. And while it’s always impossible to see every great film at TIFF, especially as most are crammed into its first weekend, I’m sorry to have missed Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, Ned Benson’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Richard Ayoade’s The Double, and Richard Shepard’s Dom Hemingway— each of which I’ve heard great things about. More than anything though, I strongly recommend the Toronto Film Festival for anyone who needs their faith in movies restored, as there’s no medicine for the Multiplex Blues quite like seeing a ton of great, diverse movies with a whole town filled with people who love them. I know It’s enough to fill my geek-tank until spring, at the very least.

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